This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

Television does not do justice to the reality of fire. Nor does what we might call ‘reasonable proximity’.

I once played with my children on a beach in Greece whilst watching aircraft try to extinguish a forest fire on the hills beyond the bay. It was interesting to watch – while we played and swam – and only became more than a spectator event when we later saw pictures of the destruction and learned the names of those who had died in the flames.

In his remarkable ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton uses a phrase that has haunted many imaginations through the centuries. He speaks of ‘darkness visible’ – a term that has been used subsequently to depict severe depression, among other things. I think it speaks powerfully here, too. Fire, as it consumes and rages, often beyond control, sucks the light and oxygen to the extent that the dark emptiness it generates is only visible to those who spectate from beyond.

We don’t know who or what started the fires in Greece. There have been suggestions that they were started deliberately – either out of sheer wanton destructiveness or criminality. But, voices are also being raised in favour of climate-change. Who knows?

Whichever proves to be the right explanation in the end, each brings its own moral culpability. Of course, it’s easier to deal with criminality because we can blame the arsonist and distance ourselves from any responsibility for the destructiveness. Climate change, on the other hand, is harder to duck.

None of this is much comfort to those who have lost property, land or loved ones to these terrible conflagrations. It is interesting that newspapers have been describing the fires as ‘biblical’ without anywhere explaining why that word has been chosen or what it might mean. I assume it refers to certain biblical images of the end of the world – the apocalypse, hell or hades. Fire and brimstone, burning and darkness and dust. Darkness visible.

Yet, perhaps the word ‘biblical’ might actually point us to a different meaning. Even if the Greek fires do not presage the end of the world, they certainly represent the end of a world – someone’s world. Family members lost, homes and communities destroyed, businesses consumed. Yet, biblical warnings of fire and loss are always accompanied by defiant words of hope – language that holds out a future beyond the immediate darkness. What one theologian calls ‘newness after loss’ … so that the last word does not belong to destruction.

This is human experience throughout all time. And compassion for those who suffer is what should burn in the hearts of spectators, shaping the collective will of people and nations who seek to end the suffering and open a future.

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At last – a shaft of light penetrates into the murkiness of much public commentary on Christianity and religious matters. Today’s Guardian newspapercontains two articles about the call by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to teach our children the Bible. His reasoning? You can’t understand English (or global) cultural or historical heritage – particularly art, literature or theatre – unless you have a basic familiarity with the biblical text.

the-holy-bible1Andrew Motion is an atheist, so he is not banging a theistic drum here. Rather, as an intelligent man with his brain engaged, he is stating the blindingly obvious in the face of a culture that has largely lost its ability to be rational about anything to do with religion, Christianity or the Bible.

john-miltonHis point is simply that successive generations of students are ignorant of the stories that formed the worldview of a couple of thousand years of western people. So, you can’t understand them or their art if you don’t understand to what their art refers. Motion recalls teaching students of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who had no idea there had been a Civil War in England and understood nothing of the references that are integral to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained (for example). This isn’t about evangelism or indoctrinating children with religious fables; rather, it is about equipping children and young people with the basic tools they need to understand their historical and contemporary culture.

No surprise, then, that the ridiculous and irrational National Secular Society spokesman should respond with this enlightened nonsense: “It’s a bit excessive – children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. They also attend compulsory acts of worship which includes reading the Bible. Isn’t that enough?” So says Keith Porteous Wood, executive director and former general secretary of the National Secular Society. It is so silly (and a prime example of missing the point) that it isn’t worth spending any further time on it.

I think Andrew Motion has been able to say what many of us have been saying for years, but without the ‘credibility’ that comes from being an atheist. Motion asserts that study of the great stories (classical, biblical and other religious stories) would form part of a general studies programme – somthing that has long since dropped off the syllabus at many schools because of an obsession with targets, exam preparation and narrow specialising in limited fields.

shakespeare300He says: “I can imagine every teacher in the land saying, ‘not more to do’, because the pressure on the curriculum is so enormously heavy already” … I’m not suggesting this as a ‘bolt-on’, but part of a broader rethinking about what education is meant to be. What is probably required is a more radical conversation about how the curriculum is structured.”

The Guardian article also notes that “aside from the Cross Reference Project, which is supported by the Bible Society, and provides resources to help students to understand how literature has been shaped by the Bible, there is little out there” to help teachers who have also been brought up without the knowledge they need to teach this stuff.